Carole Cadwalladr, the Welsh journalist who had exposed Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s messing with the Brexit referendum, tells Chidanand Rajghatta why she thinks the ‘gods of Silicon Valley’ are failing democracies across the globe
What is your sense of the role played by technology and social media in the election campaign?
I have seen the power of technology and social media. It’s quite terrifying, really. You have the biggest democracy on earth with an incredible penetration of cellphones and cheap data. The problems in India are even more profound than with Brexit or Trump because we know WhatsApp has been weaponised and that is even darker than Facebook and less accountable because of the speed with which lies and rumours can spread. Your elections are not going to be like elections in the past, and I am moved thinking about it because India has been a shining example of a sound electoral democracy.
But why blame technology? Isn’t its application the problem?
True. The difference is that it is just more potent now with social media. And it is all happening in darkness and at great speed. Previously, political parties had platforms and public positions and they could be held to account. But when stuff is sent in darkness through proxies and it vanishes, there is no way of holding anyone to account. It is like poison dripped into the well without anyone knowing. Social media companies are not being held accountable for who is buying ads and how much they are buying to spread disinformation, divisiveness, and hatred to distort outcomes.
You identified this issue with Brexit and the US elections. How does one address it?
Every single country in the world where there is election and access to social media technology is faced with this problem and no one knows what to do about it. Mostly it is not being acknowledged. So, really, the goal for me in the Cambridge Analytica expose was about breaking through this wall of silence. The problem is so big and so intractable that we are all reluctant to face it. It is like staring at the sun.
What has been the response?
Silicon Valley lives in a bubble and its gods are oblivious to the havoc they have caused. Their technology is wonderful but it is subverting elections and you are accessories to it. Liberal democracy is broken and you (Silicon Valley) broke it.
What has been the response of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook?
Cambridge Analytica is owned by Robert Mercer, who bankrolled Trump, and threatened to sue us multiple times when we wrote about how it had profiled people to understand their fears and better target them by illicitly harvesting profiles of 87 million people on Facebook. A day ahead of publication we got another legal threat from Facebook. Facebook is on the wrong side of history in refusing to provide more information. They spend a lot of money. I believe they flew a bunch of journalists out of India to their headquarters in Silicon Valley and got some nice publicity.
In India, they took steps to corral WhatsApp by limiting forwards to five people and scrapped a bunch of dubious Facebook pages. What else should we expect from them?It is not enough to say you will do better; you have to demonstrate good faith and get to the bottom of it. Spreading hate in darkness with advertising through money that is not being accounted for is not democracy. It is not left or right, or leave or remain or Trump or not. It is about whether it is possible to have a free and fair election ever again. Is this what you want? Is this how you want history to remember you — as handmaidens to authoritarianism that is on the rise all across the world? You set out to connect people and the same tech is now driving us apart
Do you see a link between right-wing movements in many countries? There’s so much we don’t know. But we know they are copying and learning techniques from each other. We know in Europe there is a network of right-wing parties. We know the different authoritarian politicians in different countries use these platforms and we know the tech platforms favour their lack of transparency.
Isn’t there a growing ideological divide in the media too? Indeed. The Brexit coverage has fallen along party and ideological lines and people have failed to see that it is something bigger. It might take another corrupt election to show it. Hate and fear are being sown all across the world and it is connecting and spreading globally via tech platforms.